The Fresh Loaf

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When is a pre-ferment of use?

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pmiker's picture
pmiker

When is a pre-ferment of use?

This question is not to, in any way, offend anyone's methods or knowledge of baking.

Having read numerous bread books, the consensus seems to be that you must have a pre-ferment.  Bread made quickly via a straight dough will be not have near the flavor without a pre-ferment.  Hmmm, sounds logical.  But being of an inquisitive nature I did a test.

I made two batches (2 loaves per batch) of bread from a common recipe.  It was a whole wheat loaf that is about 60%a bread flour and 40% whole wheat.  It's a nice recipe and makes a wonderfully soft and lightly flavored whole wheat sandwich bread.  For one batch I took the whole wheat (10 oz), water (10 oz) and a pinch of yeast to make a poolish.  I mixed it and set it out covered in my kitchen for over 13 hours.  The temperature was 70-72F. 

On day two I made one batch using the poolish and another batch by just mixing it all at once and baking, a straight dough.  Both batches had the same ingredients, same environment, same rise times and the same oven environment.  And both batches look and taste identical.  Same flavor, crust and crumb.

So.  Did I do something wrong?  Is a preferment of use in just certain cases?  Or is a preferment only useful in whole grain recipes that do not have as much bread/ap flour in them?

Just curious

LindyD's picture
LindyD

A poolish contains no salt.  Equal parts of water and flour, and a very tiny pinch of yeast.

richkaimd's picture
richkaimd

I think you are asking a very good question.  Understanding its answer clearly and concisely will help you a lot.  No need to say "just curious."

I recommend that you seek the constant help of an expert.  If you don't have one at hand, get a text book, not a bread cook book.  Text books give you all the fundamentals slowly and steadily, building up a body of knowledge in your head and hands through reading and practical exercises.   (Remember that while bakers are not rocket scientists, like rocket scientists, they, too, go to school for quite a while to learn their stuff.)  Bread cook books (I'm assuming that's what you meant by "bread book") don't have the same awesome responsiblity to take you as seriously as a text book does. 

I regularly recommend DiMuzio's Bread Baking for this purpose.  It's not expensive, especially if you buy a used copy at Alibris.  Check it out.  Then give yourself lots of time to work your way through it .   You'll never regret it.  Just don't be in a hurry.  Take your time.  Do all the exercises.  Once you've been through the book, you'll be so pleased and delighted with yourself, and so much better at understanding what your doing!

 

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

I second this recommendation.  Dan's book is great due to it's simplicity and how it all has been put together.

 

pmiker's picture
pmiker

I corrected salt to read yeast.  It was a pinch of yeast and it did rise nicely overnight.

I have several bread books such as almost all of Peter Reinhart's, Jeff Hamelman's new one and a slew of others.  I also have Bread Science.  I do not have the DiMuzio book but will check it out.

The local bakery is either the grocery store or Walmart.  I don't think I will find a mentor there.

I have been baking now for a few years.  I typically bake once or twice a week and make the family's sandwich bread.  I also bring in breads to share with my co-workers.  I also mill my own flour.  So far, I've done well.  Every now and then I try to take it up a notch and still fit things in with my work schedule.  So, I thought I would do a test using the recipe I had made the most often.

I will go look for the book and check it out.

Thanks,

Mike

Janetcook's picture
Janetcook

I see you mentioned P. Reinhart as one of the authors you have read.  I also bake exclusively with freshly ground grains and his book 'Whole Grain Breads' totally revolutionized how I bake bread. Is it one of his that you have read?  It gave me a much better understanding about how to get better loaves of bread using whole grains and it also was the spring board to my using sourdough as a leavening agent.  I don't think I ever would have tried it had it not been for his book.  It also enabled me to convert just about any recipe I have run across into one that can be baked with the grains I use.

Janet

pmiker's picture
pmiker

Here is a photo of the bread with the poolish:

 

Here is the bread made quickly, no poolish:

I looked at Bread Baking:An Artisan's Perspective.  Is this a book for a home baker?  It gets high reviews at Amazon.  It looks like a good book from what I could view.

 

wally's picture
wally

I think you'll find that preferments are used most frequently with white doughs where almost all of the flavor is derived from the bread flour.  Such doughs include baguette and ciabatta, fougasse, pizza dough, etc.

In these cases if you do a side-by-side comparison of flavors as you did above, I think you'll find a quite noticeable difference in those using a preferment (this assumes that you are using good quality bread flour, e.g., non-bleached, non-bromated).

Give it a whirl!

Larry

pmiker's picture
pmiker

I tend to make primarily whole wheat breads.  As I said above, I mill my own wheat.  I do this just prior to mixing and only mill what I need at any given time.  Should I make a white bread, I will test this out.  Perhaps I can make a french or italian bread that uses just white flours.  This would give me an excuse.

richkaimd's picture
richkaimd

Of the books you've listed, only Hamelman's is a text; the others are bread cook books.  Hamelman's is far to intense for the level of baker you describe yourself as being.  I suspect that you would stop working your way through Hamelman quickly and have more fun with DiMuzio.  There's lots to learn.  Make sure it's not the chore that Hamelman would be.

LindyD's picture
LindyD

I can't help but respond to the comment that Mr. Hamelman's text is a "chore."  

We all march to different drummers and I found Bread  as a wonderfully written and  easy to follow book which has enabled me to consistently bake wonderful bread.  

I only wish it was the first book I had purchased when I started baking.    I would have saved a lot of time and  frustration - and avoided making many mistakes.  

I have Dan's book as well.   He sings the same lyrics as Hamelman, just to a different tune.  Both texts are music to anyone serious about creating great bread.

JMonkey's picture
JMonkey

I, too, usually make whole grain breads. For what it's worth, I think the decision about whether it makes sense to use a pre-ferment depends on the type of bread you're making and how you plan to use it. If the bread is going to be used for  sandwiches piled high with mustard, deli meats, cheeses and pickles, I'd not bother. Likewise, if the bread is enriched with butter, sweeteners, dried fruits  and / or spices, I don't think it's worth the effort. These other flavors overpower the pre-ferment.

If the bread is lean (flour, water, salt, leavening and nothing else), however, and will be eaten by itself or with butter, I almost always use some sort of pre-ferment, because it definitely improves the bread's flavor. Keeps better, too.

I used to use pre-ferments with all my breads. These days, however, for whole wheat sandwich loaves, anyway, I've taken to doing two bulk rises before shaping, per Laurel Robertson (of the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book fame). It really improves volume and, I think, improves flavor as well. Though that flavor improvement doesn't much matter if I'm having a tempeh reuben with saurkraut and mustard. :-)

ananda's picture
ananda

Hello Mike,

I want to agree with JMonkey that the decision about whether or not to use a pre-ferment may very well be made in consideration of the type of bread being made.

What I am uncertain of, is the amount of time you gave to allowing your straight dough to ferment in bulk.   JMonkey specifies 2 bulk rises, which I imagine to be in the order of 2-3 hours in room temperature conditions.   So this version is hardly a "quick bread".   How long do you bulk ferment?

I think the flavour dimension of fermentation is very often over-played at the expense of dough rheology in the round.   There are a lot of complex changes taking place in dough...enzymatic, physical, chemical and biological.   For sure, these have an impact on final flavour, but they impact across many attributes of the final bread.

In particular, a pre-ferment acts as a dough improver.   Hence why I agree with JMonkey's ideas about enriched doughs.   However, I'm looking more at the improving aspects of fats and sugars in the enriched formula, rather than concentrating on the flavours in the finished bread.

I'm slightly disappointed that you couldn't detect any difference between the two types of bread you made.   Side-by-side, ordinarily, with a Sandwich loaf, I would expect to achieve greater volume in the loaf made with the pre-ferment, and also a more even crumb texture, unless you extend the amount of bulk time given as JMonkey advises.   All Competition Bread is made using pre-ferments; usually a 12 hour sponge, either as a quarter, or even half of the total flour in the formula.

On authors, I'm with LindyD.   I'm a little tired of reading that Hamelman is only for advanced bakers.   Bread baking can be an extremely complicated subject, and Hamelman puts his ideas across in a very clear and interesting way.   His book is, however, for "Bakers"...it says so in the title!   I note you are spending a lot of time baking, and have gained appreciation of several advanced aspects of the craft.   To me, you are one of the "bakers" who Mr Hamelman is aiming to reach.

Best wishes

Andy

pmiker's picture
pmiker

Thanks for all the replies.  They are helpful.  I'll try to answer all the questions and comment along the way.

I plan to get the textbook.  I also enjoy Hamelman's book.  Yes, I have P. Reinharts's Whole grain book. 

I do a bulk rise until the dough is doubled.  If the dough is slack and floppy, I will take it out and fold it in thirds in each direction and return it to the rising bucket.  Normally the bulk rise is about one hour perhaps a bit longer.  Slack doughs take about two hours or more.  After shaping it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to rise again before I bake.

This particular bread contains bread flour (56.5%), whole wheat flour (43.5%), water(61.3%), sugar (7.39%), butter (6.52%), salt (1.3%) and yeast (1.74%).  I create about 40-41 oz of dough, bake in two 8" x 4" pans at 375F for 35 minutes.  It turns out as pictured above.

This is with a poolish:                                                                           

This is without a poolish: (still working at the slashing!)

BTW, the above loaves were about one inch above the pan at their highest point when they went into the hot oven.  The pans sit on a baking stone.  The show quite a bit of oven spring.

As to how is the bread used?  Well it get's used as is, with butter, in PB&J sandwiches, with dressings and such for meat sandwiches, or perhaps toasted with butter and honey.  It's a good general purpose bread.  It's called Nancy's Whole Wheat Bread.  I have made this recipe many, many times.  Sometimes I include spelt for part of the whole wheat, sometimes I use oil vs. butter or honey/agave vs sugar.  It always works out.  For this test I made no deviations from the original recipe.

If the term pre-ferment is wrong, can I go with poolish?  My understanding is that a poolish is wetter than a biga, includes yeast and is allow to 'do it's thing' for hours prior to being added to the remaider of the ingredients.   I chose the word 'pre-ferment' because it was used in a book by someone a whole lot more experienced than I.  I took it to mean the fermenting of a portion of the dough prior to the bulk rise/fermenting of the total dough.

Thanks again,

Mike

JMonkey's picture
JMonkey

... is simply to try a bunch of stuff and see what you like best! There really isn't a *right* way to do anything in baking; just different techniques to get different effects. Injerna, for example, is a super sour flatbread with almost no rise  (because it's made from teff), and if I'm shooting for something with which to make a PB&J, I'll be pretty ticked off if I end up with injerna. However, if I want to cover place settings with injerna to top with saucy Ethiopian food, a pullman loaf is going to tick me off even more.

I exaggerate, of course. But what I'm getting at is to try a bunch of different techniques to see what you, your family and friends personally like. After all, you're the ones who will be eating it. :-) Happy baking!

pmiker's picture
pmiker

I've tried boules, loaves, baguettes and bagels (but no flatbreads).  I've used commercial yeast and sourdough.  I even modified this same recipe to use sourdough as a leaven vs. commercial yeast.  And the overall favorite at my house is this sandwich bread.  Living out in the sticks without many baking resources to call on and being low income, I make the best of this hobby as I can.  I enjoy it and I can eat the fruits of my labor.  Since I have no local mentor, I experiment a lot and read a lot.  I'm having fun with it and that's what I like.

JMonkey's picture
JMonkey

You and I are on the same page, it sounds like. Happy baking!

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

I do not like the term "pre-ferment" because I believe it to be misleading.  Technically speaking, there is no thing as pre-fermentation, not if speaking about the way bread has been made for 99% of its history.  The advent of brewer's (and, later, specialised baker's) yeast changed the way we, as a culture, view bread.  Traditional methods that use the continuous propagation of a dough's leavening agents necessitates the carry-over of beneficial, organic acids and enzymatic by-products from its previous substrate and into a new one.  This transfer gives bread its characteristic physico-chemical make-up; this is the reason for modern dough ameloriants and additives, to introduce to direct-method fermentation through outside means what would normally occur through natural sourdough fermentation.

We know that, on average, the greater the type and quantity of changes that take place in a dough, the better the resultant loaf will be.  Pre-ferments are an attempt to mimic what has always been done, since all fermentation has been, historically, indirect.  The benefits, of course, are numerous, stopping just shy of those provided by natural leavening.

Think of them as natural dough-improvers that do not require the same continual maintenance a sourdough culture does, another tool in your baker's tool-box.

ananda's picture
ananda

Hello AP,

Kirkland's book of 1927 discusses a number of commercial breadmaking processes in use at the time in the UK.   One of the most common was a 12 hour direct method.

Whilst I agree with what you have to say about the complexities of fermentation, I'm afraid I'm not with you about ceasing to use the term "pre-ferment".   Ok, it may involve some element of continuous propogation, but not necessarily.   Given we are where we are [ie. bakers and brewers yeasts are a reality], I am happy with the term pre-ferment which reveals that the bread has been made using an indirect method with some element of more complex fermentation.

Best wishes

Andy

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

How long ago?  Roughly the same amount of time as when the two countries I've lived in (the U.S., Australia) were founded by people from the country you live in.

Here's the rub about the term "pre-ferment:"  why not say that "fermentation," full stop, begins as soon as the first lot of flour, water and whatever leavening agent is mixed together?  Why divide "pre-" from "bulk" time?  Shouldn't we, as bakers, just sell it as bread that takes, say, 18 hours to make (even if it's a 12-hour poolish and a 6-hour baguette)?  After all, it is one fermentation, as it is experienced by the taster in the end product.  I find the idea of "pre-" to be very confusing to consumers, beginning bakers, and just about everybody in general.

As always, I'm sure we'll be on the same side of the coin.  My point is merely semantic, and wanting to push bakers to the deeper understanding that all co-fermentations are still just one fermentation if they end up in the same loaf of bread.

Cheers.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Why even go that far?  (include yeast)

I'm sure a "pre-ferment" wasn't called a pre-ferment before the advent of commercially available yeast speeding up fermentation.  The autolyse term is also a new one but in my conception also a pre-ferment in that as soon as water and flour combine, fermentation soon begins.  It is fermentation at a very low level not too noticed in cooler temperatures but in warmer conditions soon noticeable.  Adding any variety of yeast to this wet flour speeds up the fermentation.  The danger with fast fermentation is skipping over the benefits of slower fermentation and decomposition of unhealthy acids and compounds existing in the outer layers of grain designed by nature to ward off predators.  

It hasn't been discussed but grain seed is evolving in the laboratory to defend itself more and more from disease and physical conditions that weaken the plants and seed.  Do not forget that we are also an enemy of the plant because we eat it.  We may propagate it but we may be making the plant more resistant to our own eating of it.  What was good two hundred plus years ago to make the plant more edible, might easily not be enough pre-handling for today's varieties.  This aspect has not been thoroughly investigated.

The term pre-ferment must come from the basic notion of one fermentation as a standard.  (Just like the dated use of white wheat wonder bread as a standard.)  A straight process of mixing up the dough and letting it ferment.  The more one learns about grain and bread, multiple rises and fermenting times, the fuzzier the lines of "standard" become.  It is part of the learning process.  Some kind of division has to be made (the use of pre-) to tell those of us who understand simple commercial yeast fermenting, that something special is done before the bulk fermenting.  Something more than just mix the ingredients, pour in the yeast and let it rise.  The wide use of packaged quick yeast has led to the word usage.  That's my theory anyway.  A word that evolved to explain not to the trained baker but to the masses something more is involved.  The word is not used with sourdough.

Pre-ferment means something done before the main ferment, not necessarily a ferment.  Although I have to admit that it is open to interpretation as meaning an added yeast fermenting step before another fermenting step.  

Mini

fminparis's picture
fminparis

I've been baking breads for over 25 years.  I started without preferments but as I read about them over the years I tried them.  I made boules and baguettes both ways and found absolutely no difference in taste, crumb, rise, crust or anything else.  So I never bother with preferments anymore.